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The cosmology of the Book of Hebrews



threefold heaven

In the Epistle to the Hebrews both spatial and temporal language are employed to convey the exhortations of the author. Platonic dualism and Jewish Apocalyptic themes are woven throughout the text; this outlines a cosmology that is both distinct and efficient in which the author expresses his message of perseverance and an assurance of hope in a future salvation. This essay draws out some important cosmological features and considers what place the current creation has in the epistle’s eschatological framework.


The Heaven[s] and the Earth


Adams lays out the case for a cosmological structure in the epistle which encompasses the Earth and a visible heaven; these are, of course, an act of creation by God. Alongside these, an invisible heaven, which is the dwelling place of God, is also described.[1] This structure to the created world, with multiple heavens, is also observed in Jewish Apocalyptic writing and the New Testament. Adams goes on to highlight that any recognition of a ‘third sphere of existence’, and by this he means that of Hades or Sheol, which were common to both the Hellenic and Jewish worldview, receive no focus from the author in the epistle. So, there is no mention of a categorical afterlife in the authors cosmology. However, he states that a third sphere is proposed by Ellingworth: an ‘intermediary world occupied by Angels’.[2]

Ellingworth, however, only posits that this is an apparent presupposition that the author of the epistle holds, and not one that he himself holds. He writes: ‘the author seldom pauses to make explicit cosmological statements’; therefore, it is difficult to ‘draw a comprehensive picture’.[3]


For Ellingworth, although the cosmology is important, it is only employed as a tool to illustrate Jesus’ work. In the epistle, the cosmology is intrinsically linked with eschatology and soteriology. He develops the idea of a vertical movement within the text that acts as imagery for the reader to realise the purpose of the epistle. He notes ‘latent cosmology’ and ‘patent soteriology’ apparent in some verses.[4] This spatial language allows the intended reader to follow Jesus’ progress through the timeline of salvation-history; He first descends from heaven by being made lower than the angels (Heb 2:9), this is illustrative of Jesus’ incarnation on Earth. The middle point of Jesus’ journey comes as He passes into heaven with death on the cross (Heb 4:14). The conclusion is the ascension and His resultant exaltation above the heavens (Heb 7:26).


The threefold division of God’s creation is important, but more so, the access which Jesus, as the Son of God, is granted: an ‘Access All Areas’ pass which is bestowed upon Him to reflect the important role He holds in the eschatological purpose of the Father. In the opening verses of chapter 1 we see God ‘appoint’ his Son ‘as heir of all things’, but we also see the Son as the agent of the current creation; it is through him ‘the world’ or ‘the universe is created. It can be argued however that 1.2 reflects temporal language with the use of the Greek ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν (in these last days) and αιῶνας which has a literal translation of ages, eons, or epochs. Harriman is very much of this view and argues that this is a better translation for the ‘eschatological framework’ within the epistle.[5] Ellingworth bluntly states what seems to be the consensus of scholarship that: ‘there is, however, little doubt that the derived spatial sense of the ‘world’ best suits the context here.’[6]

This important debate draws out the tension of the interplay between space and time in the epistle. Caneday points out that not only are there two realms apparent in the epistle, but also two eras: ‘the former days’ and ‘these last days.’[7] Jesus, being the firstborn (προτοτοκος) present at the time of creation i.e., the former days, is brought into the inhabitable world (οὶκουμὲνη) in the eschatological present i.e., these last days. The quotations from Psalms 45 and 102 in chapter one, indicate that a constant within God’s eschatological plan will be the presence of the Son. The Son, who was present at creation, will eternally remain even as the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are set to perish. The future passive παλαιωθήσονται is indicative of a future time when they both become obsolete. What this points to is a destruction of the created space, but not necessarily a destruction of created time. If the Son is to remain eternally, He must have some abode in which to dwell. This can be explained by the threefold heavens if a part of it lies outside created time. Earth and the heavens can therefore be annihilated whilst this abode remains intact; the author indicates this is what will happen with the quotation from psalm 102. He utilises a metaphor of them as a garment which is set to be rolled up and changed (Heb 1.11-12). The heavens, in this context pertains to both sky and outer space; the Earth, which lies alongside, makes up the entirety of created space. However, the place where Jesus is currently exalted, above the heavens, must remain somewhere else, or perhaps some when else.

Wherever or whenever this is, Jesus can enter into it (εισερχομαι) and some of the beings that inhabit the epistle’s cosmology, ‘in these last days’, can follow after Him. Caneday believes this realm, described in 2.5 as ‘τὴν οἰκουμένην τὴν μέλλουσαν’, is the same οὶκουμὲνη mentioned in 1.6; it is the same world of eschatological salvation which the Son enters as high priest; it is the destination for mankind at a future date and not the created space Jesus entered at the time of the incarnation.[8] The quotation from Psalm 8 in Heb 2.6-8, according to Caneday, lets the author of the epistle bring out the link between the present world and the inhabitable world to come.[9] For God’s eschatological purpose, the current created space must fall away, but the chosen followers of Jesus will have a place to go to. This is because of Jesus’ cosmological role as high priest.


The Heavenly Tabernacle


Jesus’ role of high priest must be ordained from beyond created space; His earthly descendance, from the line of Judah, renders him ineligible in Levitical Law to hold such a position. Heb 8.4 states this fact, but chapter 7 goes into detail as to how he holds the position according to the line of Melchizedek. Not only is Jesus the true high priest, He also serves the true tabernacle which is situated elsewhere. The precise nature of the heavenly tabernacle remains hotly debated; the rhetoric of Hebrews chapter 8-10 gives what Schenck calls ‘a Hellenistic feel to the epistle’.[10] Schenck believes that Platonic language is in use which ‘reflect a significant divergence both from the rest of the New Testament and much Jewish literature of the period’.[11] However, a focus on this can lead the reader astray, what is more pertinent is Schenck’s observation that ‘spatial and psychological motifs’ are utilised in a manner unique to the New Testament.[12] The real contrast that is brought to the fore is the linking of the earthly and heavenly realms with the Old and New Covenants respectively. This again brings about a focus on the temporal element to the epistle. Schenck writes of the author:

He was able to explicate the overlap of the two ages cosmologically, old age tied inextricably to the earthly, visible realm and the new tied to the spiritual and heavenly dimensions of existence.[13]

The extended metaphor of the first tent and the second tent of the Heavenly Tabernacle that Jesus moves through returns us to horizontal language. Hurst argues strongly that the text concerning the tabernacle is a departure from the vertical, spatial, language of Platonism, contra Schenck, to the horizontal, temporal, Apocalyptic language of Judaism.[14] It seems clear that the first and second tent is allegorical of an inauguration of the New Covenant found in Jesus. Hurst argues that the author of the epistle has both Ezekiel and Exodus in mind, and that a platonic reading of the text is based on ‘insufficient scrutiny’.[15]


Ellingworth concedes this view in part, noting that in 9.6 εισιασιν is used for the ‘entry of the Aaronic priests into the first tent’; this word recalls the rare LXX use of the same word in Ex 28.29.[16] Hurst is of the opinion that words Schenck associates with Plato such as ύποδειγμα and αντιτυπος, are found in the LXX in Ezekiel 42.15 and Exodus 25.40; he argues that the correct translation of the words imply a prefiguration of something that will come later as opposed to the platonic dualism.[17] Hurst’s ideas here help the present day reader to realise the past/present/future framework of the epistle while the earthly/heavenly framework remains apparent in the cosmology. Both frameworks are useful to draw out the sense of movement within the text, the goal of the author is to take his readers οn a pilgrimage, either through space or time, to a final destination. This final destination is the καταπαυσις.


The καταπαυσις


Thompson, citing Hofius’ work, notes that ‘rest’ and ‘sabbath’ are important eschatological categories in Rabbinic Apocalyptic literature; therefore, this is in agreement with Hurst’s conceptual framework of Hebrews.[18] However, he returns to the platonic language debate once more. In Plato’s Timaeus he remarks that movement is a characteristic of the material world whereas ἀναπαυσις belongs to the nature of God.[19] Thompson moves from Platonic language to Philonic language, and to the parallels found in the letter to the Hebrews; he concludes God’s rest in the letter is a realm of being that shares metaphysical qualities in line with Philo’s philosophy.[20] De Silva too is of the opinion that ‘entering the rest’ can be no other than entering the divine realm. He writes that the promise made to Abraham is being redefined in Heb 11.14-16 as no longer an inheritance in the Land of Canaan, but as inheritance in the eternal realm.[21] Lombard writes that ‘consequently the ‘rest’ is primarily soteriological regarding its reality and eschatological in respect of its fulfilment’.[22]It is important to note that rest is a reality which is bodily entered, but furthermore we see the same space time tension: the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God so prevalent throughout the New Testament. God’s rest, the καταπαυσις, is a place beyond the created heavens that the selected people will go to at a future date; it is also the place in existence now where Jesus sits at the right hand of God. These two realities are to be joined at the end of the ages (ἐπὶ συντελείᾳ τῶν αἰώνων) Heb 9.28. This idea can be found in the apocalyptic writings of John in Rev 11.15: ‘The kingdom of the world (κοσμου) has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ The author of Hebrews does not perceive a restoration of the current creation, more an assimilation or merging into the other divine realm; this assimilation will be so different from its present state it may be tantamount to an annihilation of the current creation.


Conclusion


This essay focused on three important cosmological features present in the epistle; it was illustrated that despite the author’s outwardly pessimistic view on the current creation, there remains a hope. Spatial and temporal language overlap, much like the two ages of the Kingdom of God, to produce a view that is unique to the author. The Pauline view that the creation will be restored, in some manner remains; yet the author does not perceive a restoration of the creation that does not first include a change so drastic it may resemble an annihilation. He perceives a realm outwith the current created cosmos which is the divine dwelling place of God; this shall remain when the created world is shaken to destruction. Operating in the Jewish paradigm that God exists outside of both created time and space, he skilfully crafts a narrative of salvation history that is both spatial and temporal in nature. Using the heavenly tabernacle as analogous to the multilayered heavens, as well as representative of the Old and the New Covenant, he pulls together the eschatological plan of God and provides a backdrop to it framed by cosmology.













Bibliography

Adams, Edward, ‘The Cosmology of Hebrews,’ in Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian theology, ed. by Richard Bauckham, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009)


Caneday, Ardel B., ‘The eschatological world already subject to the son’ in A Cloud of Witnesses: The theology of Hebrews in its Ancient context, ed by Richard Bauckham (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2008)


DeSilva, David A., ‘Entering God’s Rest: Eschatology and the socio-rhetorical strategy of Hebrews’ Trinity Journal 21.1 (2000), 25-43.


Ellingworth, Paul, ‘Jesus and the Universe in Hebrews’, the Evangelical Quarterly 58.4 (1986)


Ellingworth, Paul The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,1993)


Harriman, Ross, ‘Through Whom He Made the Ages: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation of Heb 1:2c.’ Novum Testamentum, 61.4 (2019), 423–39.


Hurst, Lincoln, ‘How platonic are Heb viii.5 and ix.23?’, The Journal of Theological Studies, 34.1 (1983)


Lombard, H.A, ‘Katapausis in the letter to the Hebrews’, Neotestamentica 5 (1971), 60-71


Schenck, Kenneth L., Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Setting of the Sacrifice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)


Thompson, James, The beginning of Christian Philosophy, (Washington: Catholic Bible association, 1982)


[1] Edward Adams, ‘The Cosmology of Hebrews,’ in Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian theology, ed. by Richard Bauckham, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) pp107-121 (p.112) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [20/10/2023] [2] Edward Adams, The Cosmology of Hebrewsp.112 [3] Paul Ellingworth, ‘Jesus and the Universe in Hebrews’, the Evangelical Quarterly 58.4 (1986), 337-350 (p. 339) < 1986-4_337.pdf (biblicalstudies.org.uk)> [20/10/2023] [4] Paul Ellingworth, ‘Jesus and the Universe in Hebrews’, p. 340 [5] Ross Harriman, ‘Through Whom He Made the Ages: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation of Heb 1:2c.’ Novum Testamentum, 61.4 (2019), 423–39. (p.425) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26777783> [20/10/2023] [6] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,1993) p.96 [7] Ardel B. Caneday, ‘The eschatological world already subject to the son’ in A Cloud of Witnesses: The theology of Hebrews in its Ancient context, ed by Richard Bauckham (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2008), 28-40 (p. 38) < https://r3.vlereader.com/Reader?ean=9780567147752> [20/10/2023] [8] Ardel B Caneday, ‘The eschatological world already subject to the son’ p. 29-30 [9] Ardel B Caneday, ‘The eschatological world already subject to the son’, p. 35 [10] Kenneth L Schenck, Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Setting of the Sacrifice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 144 < https://r3.vlereader.com/Reader?ean=9780511375019> [20/10/2023] [11] Kenneth L Schenck, Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Setting of the Sacrifice, p. 144 [12] Kenneth L Schenck, Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Setting of the Sacrifice p. 116 [13] Kenneth L Schenck, Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Setting of the Sacrifice p. 116 [14] Lincoln Hurst, ‘How platonic are Heb viii.5 and ix.23?’, The Journal of Theological Studies, 34.1 (1983), 156-168 (p.163) < https://doi-org.uhi.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/jts/34.1.156> [27/10/2023] [15] Lincoln Hurst, ‘How platonic are Heb viii.5 and ix.23?’ p.168. [16] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 433 [17] Lincoln Hurst, ‘How platonic are Heb viii.5 and ix.23?’ p.168. [18] James Thompson, The beginning of Christian Philosophy, (Washington: Catholic Bible association, 1982) p. 82 [19] James Thompson, The beginning of Christian Philosophy, p. 84 [20] James Thompson, The beginning of Christian Philosophy, p. 102 [21] David A.DeSilva, ‘Entering God’s Rest: Eschatology and the socio-rhetorical strategy of Hebrews’ Trinity Journal 21.1 (2000), 25-43 (p. 34-35) [22] H A Lombard, ‘Katapausis in the letter to the Hebrews’, Neotestamentica 5 (1971), 60-71 (p. 69)

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